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Handsome or not, The Handsome Family makes solid music

TT the Bears, Cambridge, Mass., July 20, 2006

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The Handsome Family is indeed family, but handsome? That well could be up to the beholder, especially since this is a husband-and-wife duo, Brett and Rennie sparks.

But make no mistake about it, the Sparks, augmented by a strong backing section, proved they make quality music touring behind the recently released "The Last Days of Wonder" CD on Carrot Top.

Brett Sparks handled most of the vocals, a real blessing. The Texas native (the Sparks live in New Mexico) owns one strong, full-bodied, deep voice that has no trouble making listeners take notice. That has always been a distinct strength. Simply put, Sparks was so easy to listen to no matter what he sang about. That was evident on "I Know You Are There," where his big voice came through, and even going softer during the song did not lessen the attention his performance demands.

And what he sang about wasn't always a straight shot given that Rennie contributes some offbeat lyrics or topics. How many folks bother to write about the inventor Tesla "("Tesla's Hotel Room") as Rennie did on the new album?

Rennie Sparks has a strong sense of humor, which came through time and again with her stage chatter. She was very funny, but fortunately did not come off as being too cute. Many of the comments were directed at her husband, who seemed quite used to it by now.

But on this night, Rennie Sparks went behind her stage persona to offer herself as a very strong musician as well, playing banjo on many songs, bass, autoharp and several other instruments to boot, which helped vary the sound. She also did a good job of harmonizing with her husband.

Drummer Jason Toth and mandolinist Stephen Daroche also were important in keeping a steady beat and adding spark to the 80-minutes of music respectively.

Whether they're handsome or family was pretty much immaterial. What mattered was that Brett and Rennie Sparks made solid, engaging music.

Chris Kirkpatrick of Meat Puppets fame opened with a set that was a bit too mired in vocal histrionics and okay material.